Cedar Creek Gold Rush

The Cedar Creek Mining District is located in Mineral County, Montana on the east slope of the Bitterroot Mountains, southwest of what is now the town of Superior. The district encompasses Cedar, Quartz and Trout Creeks and their tributaries, which originate near the crest of the northwestward extension of the Bitterroot Range. The creeks flow northeastward to the Clark Fork River. Mineral County is bound by Missoula and Sanders counties and shares a border with the State of Idaho.

Mineral County

Mineral County encompasses 1,223 square miles. Its land is 82% National Forest and is managed by the US Forest Service. 3% of the land is owned by the State of Montana and 15% is privately owned. The county’s rich mining history lends its name.

Most of the county topography is quite rugged with elevations ranging from 2500 to 8000 feet above sea level.

There are 87 miles of river, 650 miles of streams and over 50 high mountain lakes to compliment the innumerable alpine meadows, magnificent waterfalls and jaw dropping vistas.

The Mineral County area started being developed following the construction of the Mullan Trail in 1859. Prior to clearing and cutting of the trail, extremely dense forests of giant cedars, ponderosa pine, hemlock, tamarack and fir made traveling through the area arduous and very dangerous. Captain Mullan forbade any of his men to search for gold for fear a “gold rush” would disrupt the trail construction.

On September 11, 1865 the first two claims were filed, on the St. Regis River. W. W. Johnson, who had worked as a surveyor on the Mullan Trail, filed a gold claim, the “Missoula Gold and Silver Quartz Ledge,” and Peter Toft filed the “Beaver Gold and Silver Quartz Ledge”. Sketchy historical records fail to indicate whether either claim was ever actually worked.

History Of The Cedar Creek Gold Rush

In the fall of 1868, a French Canadian prospector, Louis Barrette had run out of luck and dreams working the gold fields of Northern Idaho. Despondent and broke, he set out for the French Canadian encampment of Frenchtown, Montana located along the Mullen Road. Barrette hoped that the kindness of his fellow countrymen would shelter him through the harsh Montana winter.

Traveling from Idaho to Montana, Barrette followed the St. Joe River to its headwaters in the Coeur d’ Alene Mountains. As he rode along the summit trail he noticed a deep basin on the Montana side that, to his gold prospector’s eye, looked promising. However winter was moving in and he needed to proceed to Frenchtown before snow fall in the high country prevented his passage.

Barrette firmly resolved that he would put together supplies and return to prospect the area in the spring.

On his journey to Frenchtown, Barrette met Adolph Lozeau, a fellow French Canadian who operated a ranch about five miles east of the mouth of Cedar Creek. Lozeau Forty Mile House had been a stop for wayfaring travelers along the Mullen Road for two years. Lozeau would turn out to be a pivotal character in the saga of the Cedar Creek Gold Rush.

Fortune and circumstances delayed Barrette’s return to the valley of his dreams. It was not until late fall of 1869 that Barrette was able to assemble equipment and supplies and return to Cedar Creek. Barrette and his partner, Basil Lanthier, traversed the steep cedar-clad gulch on saddle horses accompanied by a string of pack horses loaded with sufficient provisions to last them for several weeks.

Barrette and Lanthier’s departure from Frenchtown was not a well-kept secret. Rumors and speculation on the success of their exploration were common gossip. All ears waited to hear of a new gold strike or another failure.

Tired, yet jubilant, the partners arrived at Cedar Creek and then continued up stream about four miles until they found a grassy meadow located at the mouth of Cayuse Creek. Lathier went about setting up their base camp and Barrette headed for the creek.

Lady Luck smiled! On October 9th, 1869, coarse nuggets were discovered where the waters of Cayuse Creek joined Cedar Creek. Overcome with “Gold Fever” Barrette and Lanthier were not content with their first prospects and were determined to keep prospecting the gulch for richer concentrates.

Aware of the inevitable stampede once news of their discovery was known, they wished to find the best site in the area and stake it out before the swarming rush of gold seekers that would race to a strike had an chance to file claims in the area.

Finally, delighted with the near ten ounces of gold he gleaned from two test holes, Barrette established his discovery claim on the “Louiseville Bar”, which is now within the boundaries of Cinker’s Mine.

It was now late November. Winter gripped the mountains and Barrette and Lathier’s supplies were running critically low. The two prospectors returned to Lozeau’s ranch to resupply. They showed Lozeau the gold and enlisted his help to travel to Frenchtown for provisions. Barrette and Lathier knew that if they went back to the camp speculators would follow them back to their discovery.

News of a gold strike was a bigger secret than Adolph could keep. Loosened by liquor, “they found gold” slipped from Lozeau’s lips and the rush was on! By daylight the next morning over a 100 prospectors were frantically scrambling up and down the drainage.

In early December, a miner’s meeting established the Barrette Mining District and designated the town of Louisville on Barrette’s discovery claim as the district headquarters. Bad feelings arose when the Deer Lodge newspaper, the “New North-West” reported that the town of Louisville was named after Lozeau’s wife, Louise and not after Louis Barrette. Adolph Lozeau had taken credit for the discovery when he in fact had no part at all in the partners strike.

As gold seekers from all across the territory raced to Cedar Creek, the Barrette Mining District moved to establish the rules for filing claims. The length of a claim was limited to 200 feet, with width not to exceed 9 feet up the bank above the high water mark on each side of the creek. Each new arrival was allowed one claim only, with the exception of Barrette, who was allowed one additional claim to his No. 1 discovery claim.

Word of a gold strike travels the wind and spreads like wildfire. The strike on Cedar Creek was no exception. Gold seekers flocked to the frenzy. A correspondent for the New North-West newspaper, writing from Missoula, reported. “Missoula has been wild for a week”. “Hotel keepers, merchants, clerks, idle men and loafers, are all gone. . . “.

This intense migration into such a remote and restricted area presented enormous challenges in the way of food and shelter shortages. Soon 60 mule pack trains poured into the canyon selling gumboots, tarps, bacon and beans. Housing was inadequate with the majority of the dwelling merely makeshift shanties made from brush, branches and canvas. The area newspapers warned the stampeders to go “well clad, blanketed and pursed”.

Foul weather, food shortages and hazardous conditions did not deter those who suffered gold fever. Within the month the snow-packed drainage was parceled into nearly 2,500 separate claims. Tempers ran high, violence was common place and claim jumping was rampant. An estimated 3,000 men wintered that year in the gulch and it was visited by three times that many more. That first winter it was men only as there were no women on the creek in 1869.

Saloonkeepers, blacksmiths and merchants were just as excited as the miners about Cedar Creek’s potential. The new residents of Louisville, Mugginsville, Cedar Junction and Lincoln City watched with glee as these entrepreneurs ambitiously opened for business. Mining camps arose and were abandoned quickly as the focus of placering shifted around the district. The Helena Daily Herald reported on March 3, 1870 that, “Louisville had 680 houses; Cedar Junction 91. Wages are $4 – $5 a day”. “Louisville … prospecting is … running as high as $1,250.00 a pan”.

The population of the district rose upwards of 10,000 by some estimates. In 1870, Forest City, on Cedar Creek itself, reached a population of over 7,000 and was considered a commerce center for many towns in the area including Missoula. As in any gold rush, whiskey flowed, fortunes were made and lost and lives were forever changed.

Early production from the Cedar Creek Rush has been estimated as high as $10 Million Dollars. The gold mined from Cedar Creek was notably fine; some gold that was 982 fine was recovered and it was not unusual for it to be as high as 960 to 970 fine. At the time of the Cedar Creek Strike, gold was traded at $20.50 an ounce. When one applies today’s price of gold at over $1,000.00 an ounce to the calculation, the numbers are indeed impressive. Miners are notoriously closed mouth, but a few have been known to brag, so it is impossible to know the true value of the strike, however it was credible treasure and an awesome adventure.

Cedar Creek also had its share of hardrock mining. The Amador copper mine was originally discovered in 1889 by cutting into a large ore body 165 feet below the bed of Cedar Creek, but wasn’t fully worked until 1900. A townsite was laid out 11 miles below the mine, with a rail line connecting the two. Potential investors were brought out by train from the east and sold shares in the mine and lots in the townsite. A small smelter was built on Cedar Creek to process the ore. In 1919 the railroad tracks were removed in favor of hauling ore by truck. Much of the old rail bed is the foundation for the Cedar Creek Road as it is today.

There was placer mining activity along these creeks or their tributaries almost every year up to World War II. From 1946 through today, a handful of hardy miners continue their quest of the elusive golden mineral.

Welcome to Cedar Creek and may you find color in the bottom of your pan!